Time to rethink the national green belt policy

Published in SD UK – Sustainable Development UK, Spring 2007, p. 24

What kind of country is England? If you ask the people living here, the answer you are likely to get goes something like this: England is a country on an overcrowded island with ever-further sprawling cities and a countryside that is under constant threat of becoming covered in concrete by rampant development. According to a recent survey, 54 per cent of the respondents believed that at least half of England was developed with one in ten even estimating the development degree to be above 75 per cent.

The reality, however, is far away from this perception. The Generalised Land Use Database shows that only 9.8 per cent of all land in England is developed – and this figure even includes garden space in the cities. By contrast, 88 per cent of the land is green space, with the remaining 2.2 per cent of space being waterways and lakes.

Asking where the perception of overcrowding comes from, it is worth noting that 87.3 per cent of the population currently live in towns and cities with a population of at least 3,000. Almost half the people even live in cities of a quarter of a million people or more.

It is likely, therefore, that many people infer from their everyday experience of living in densely populated areas that the rest of the country must be equally developed. And from this feeling of over-crowding and over-development follows the support for policies with the expressed aim of saving the countryside from development by restraining the growth of the cities.

The most prominent of these policies is the national green belt policy. Green belts now cover an area of more than 1.6 million hectares in England or 12.9 per cent of the land. This alone is already larger than all developed space, but green belts are not the only designated areas. Apart from them there are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks. All of these designated areas account for 55.2 per cent of England’s land.

It is necessary to mention all these figures to keep a sense of proportion when discussing land-use policy and planning. The Government estimates that we will need to build some four million dwellings over the next 20 years to accommodate the growth in households – an increase of about twenty per cent from the existing dwelling stock that is due to changes in the demographic structure of society and some inward migration. While a part of this growth may well happen within existing urban areas, we believe it is reasonable to make some extra land available for this expected growth. This would also prevent further house price inflation and the associated negative housing affordability effects. Furthermore, this would protect much valued inner-city green space from being lost through development.

However, the actual decisions about such land-use changes should not be made by the national government, but closer to the people that are affected by it. This is why we suggest abolishing the national green belt policy and giving local communities control over their environment.*

This would not mean concreting over England, but building green cities with affordable housing where people actually want to live.

* The Best Laid Plans – How planning prevents economic growth by Alan W. Evans and Oliver Marc Hartwich, published by Policy Exchange, London.

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